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Toni Liechty

A Few Minutes With Toni Liechty

Vince Lara speaks with Toni Liecthy, an associate professor in the department of Recreation Sport and Tourism to talk about her research on why people get involved in fitness programs, what keeps them involved, and how life stage and body image impact that involvmement.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois's College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara and today I'm speaking with Toni Liechty, an associate professor in the Department of Recreation Sport and Tourism, to talk about her research on why people get involved in fitness programs, what keeps them involved, and how life stage and body image impact that involvement.

All right. Sitting with Toni Liechty. Toni, thank you for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it. You know, commonly, when I meet with faculty, I ask them about their inspirations for their research. Because usually, there's something that inspired you to look at what you study. And so for you, how did you get interested in your line of study?

TONI LIECHTY: So, I think maybe I might be a little different than some folks. I never had any interest in doing research or becoming a professor at all. In my field, in recreation sport and tourism, a lot of people go into the profession. And it's not as common to go into research. And I thought that's what I was going to do.

I used to work at a summer camp that was a sport and fitness camp. Which means that a lot of parents sent their kids there because they wanted them to lose weight. And while I was there, I in some ways saw that it was an amazing place for kids to come. I heard some kids say things like, I feel really comfortable at camp because I don't feel like I'm going to get bullied because of my weight and things like that.

At the same time, I saw some things that were really problematic. You know, kids would share stories of how they would lose five pounds over the weekend and these sort of unhealthy weight loss issues. Another thing that I heard that kind of broke my heart was, I still remember a camper telling me that she said, I love swimming. It's one of my favorite things to do. But I only swim at camp because at home, I don't want to be the fat kid in the pool. And it kind of broke my heart that she would have something that she loved to do that would be good for her, but her body image made it so that she felt that she couldn't do that.

And then I started to hear it more often, people saying, well, I like to play tennis. But I won't play tennis because people will be looking at me if I were a little short skirt. Or even in other sports like soccer or basketball, I don't want to run up and down the field and have people looking at my body.

And I thought initially, this was a thing that made sense at this weight loss camp. But when I came home and I decided to do a master's degree, I started to notice it very commonly. Other people who I wouldn't think of as having a weight issue still felt uncomfortable about their body.

And I think part of the reason that I really wanted to do a master's degree was because, as a professional, I looked for information about how to improve our camp, how to make it better, how to address these body image issues in the setting. And I couldn't find the information that I wanted. I didn't feel like there was enough in terms of understanding of management of camps and sport facilities and so on. I didn't feel like there was enough information about addressing body image issues specifically.

So that's why I decided I was going to go back to school and study this. And I thought I was going to go back to school and study it so that I could come back to the camp and do a better job. But I kind of got hooked on the whole research thing and it went from there.

VINCE LARA: So you never really wanted to teach or anything. But the research part of it kind of sucked you in, I guess.

TONI LIECHTY: Especially in terms of how I viewed that it could make a difference in the professional world and how it could help to sort of make people's lives better in a very noticeable way or direct way.

VINCE LARA: You know, some of your research looks at why people get into fitness programs and what keeps them there. And I'm interested, what led to that line of research?

TONI LIECHTY: Well, so when I started looking at body image, there's a lot of research that says that people start out-- that having a poor body image might encourage someone to start a fitness program. But it generally doesn't lead to long term participation. Because if your motivation is just to look good and you start doing something physically active, it's very unlikely you're going to see results immediately. And if your only motivation was to see a physical result in terms of your appearance, then that result doesn't happen so you stop doing the activity.

So I wanted to start to understand what else encourages people to be active, how can we get away from just the appearance factor, help to address different types of motivations that will keep people participating longer.

There's also a lot of research saying that body image doesn't lead to the most healthy behaviors. So if I'm trying to lose weight because of the way I look, I'm more likely to do sort of unhealthy dieting, excessive exercise, things that are going to just be focused on the way that I look.

Whereas if I'm motivated by my general health, I want to feel good, I want to interact with my friends, I want to get outdoors, things like that, I'm more likely to engage in healthy behaviors. So the idea is trying to shift people's motivation and their reasons for physical activity away from the appearance focus and toward other types of things.

VINCE LARA: I'm curious if you ever are asked to consult with, let's say, Planet Fitness or any of these other sorts of chains that pop up.

TONI LIECHTY: There's a tension there.


TONI LIECHTY: Because I think there's sort of an old fashioned thinking that if we can make people feel bad about the way they look, it will motivate them to be active.

VINCE LARA: Interesting.

TONI LIECHTY: And that's the old school marketing approach, right? If you tell people, oh, you gained weight over the holidays. Don't you want to lose that weight so that you can look good in a bikini in the summer, that it will encourage people to join your gym. But what we know from the research is that if people join the gym or whatever because of body shaming, then they do not continue to participate. So the difficulty in getting people to accept what the research says as opposed to what may seem a little bit more logical to them.

VINCE LARA: You know, one of your studies looks at barriers to physical activity. And what are some of those barriers and how do you go about trying to combat them?

TONI LIECHTY: I mean, the first barrier I was interested in was just the body image in general, being sort of self-conscious about the way you look. I think for a lot of people-- So one of the things that people will report most commonly is that their barrier is time. They'll say, well, I don't have time to do it. Yet we know from research that people have time to do a whole lot of other things, right? They have time. Everybody has 24 hours in a day.

So it's not necessarily how much time you have, but how you choose to allocate your time and what things you prioritize. A lot of people don't prioritize physical activity because it's not as easy or enjoyable as pulling out your phone and surfing on social media or doing something that's more fun.

So one of the barriers, and is going to sound silly, but is just the fact that exercise is not fun for a lot of people. And I am not-- I think a lot of people get into studying physical activity because they're fitness gurus. But I am not a fitness guru. I don't like going to the gym. I don't like running. I don't like working out in the traditional sense.


TONI LIECHTY: But I like playing tennis. I like hiking. I like doing a lot of things that are active if they have something else that makes them enjoyable. And so for me, well, we also know in terms of research that there is a certain percentage of the population that would probably be active no matter what. They enjoy being active. But that's a relatively small proportion. And most people, the majority of us don't particularly like being physically active.

So I'm trying to help figure out how we can make physical activity more fun, more enjoyable, and more of a priority for people. If they have a barrier of just the inertia of getting started, if they view physical activity as a chore, if they think of it as something negative, if they don't have anyone to participate with, that's going to be more boring than if they want to do something that's social.

And then there are a lot of barriers that people face just in their community. They face just the cost. We even hear people say that they don't go to an activity that's relatively low cost even if it's only a couple of dollars. If their income is very low, that couple of dollars on a regular basis is not something they can afford.

Being in their local neighborhood, a lot of people are not willing or able to travel a long distance to work out at a gym or to hike in a park or something like that. So it needs to be relatively accessible to help people overcome that inertia of getting out and doing something active.

VINCE LARA: So what do you try to do to combat those things? Is there a movement that you-- do reach out to, let's say, a local park or community or something like that?

TONI LIECHTY: One of the things that we've been doing-- So, I'm particularly interested in different life stages. And one group of people that are particularly inactive are older adults. And so, we've been working a little bit with Aurora Park District to find out what they do to help get people more active and what they do that is successful and is less successful.

And some of the things that they've been doing, one thing that they do is they have a punch card system so that people can buy a punch card. And every time they go to a class, they just take one punch. And that makes it so that they're not paying for a whole class if they know that they're not going be able to come every time. It makes it more cost effective. It also makes it feel less overwhelming to pay, say, a large amount of money for a session if they can't afford it all at once.

And they make the classes fun. They make sure that there's variety from class to class. They have fun music. They do fun moves during the act during the process. They encourage social interaction so that you come out come out and you hang out with your friends and you all laugh together and have a good time together. And it may sound silly, but fun is a pretty enticing element of any kind of leisure activity. So specifically for physical activity, which is not viewed as being very fun, if you can make it fun, that's going to get people coming back.

VINCE LARA: You talked about looking at specific segments of people. So one specific segment you look at is women who play tackle football, really interesting. How did you get involved with that?

TONI LIECHTY: So I actually knew someone. She was a mature student who had come back to school. And she took a class from me and I was talking a little bit about body image. And she came up to me after class and said, this really resonated with me because I've always had a poor body image because I've always been really big. And I wanted to do things like figure skating. This was when I lived in Canada and figure skating's very popular.

She said, but I never felt that I could do figure skating because I don't have a body for it. And as an adult, I started playing tackle football and I realized that suddenly, instead of being a negative thing, my size was a positive thing. People appreciated, they wanted me on their team because I was big. So I thought, that's such a unique setting. That's such a unique sport that celebrates a bigger body, which is very uncommon for women.

You know, I used to do gymnastics or I played basketball or softball or tennis, different sports that have a sort of body that's an ideal. And when I started talking to these women on the team, they said, what's awesome about football for women specifically is that we can be any size that we are, whatever our body is now, and there will be a position that suits us. So instead of me trying to make my body be the way that the sport requires, I have the body that I have and I just find a position on the team that suits the way that my body is. And that makes a big difference in terms of the way I view my body and appreciate what my body can do instead of how my body looks.

VINCE LARA: Interesting. That's a league in Canada for women who play tackle football?

TONI LIECHTY: Yeah. And there are leagues in the US, too. They're just not as well-known.

VINCE LARA: Really interesting. You know, Illinois is an R1 university. So research projects are your bailiwick, right. And typically, there's always a lot in your pipeline. So what have you got going on that you're really excited about that you're ready to talk about? It's at that stage that you're ready to talk about?

TONI LIECHTY: I think the thing that I'm kind of focusing on right now is a study I'm doing on roller derby. A colleague of mine out of Eastern Illinois University had kind of an in with some local roller derby leagues. And we did, actually, a photo voice approach where we asked the participants to take photographs of what roller derby means to them.

And they took photos of themselves doing derby. They took photos of their outfits. They took photos of their team, their family, and so on. And we interviewed them asking, why did you take these photos? Tell us about your experiences with roller derby.

And in some ways, there were some similarities to the football study in that they said, it's a really cool sort of empowering sport that celebrates your body instead of telling you to fight your body and make it a certain way. That sense of celebrating your body as it is also encourages you to keep participating because there's not a constant frustration that my body's not correct, quote unquote, for this sport.

They also talked a lot about the social aspect and how they felt a lot of social support with the team, which kept them coming back. And a lot of people talked about how participating in that sport in that moment served a really valuable need for them. Like maybe they were going through a divorce or dealing with a health issue or something like that. They found this team and this sport and they were able to enjoy doing something physically active. They felt strong and empowered. They had this social network. So it really filled a lot of needs in their life.

And again, I think that's one thing that we sometimes miss out on about physical activity. A lot of times, if you're thinking, OK, I have 30 minutes in the day or a couple of hours in the day. If I can just only get physical activity out of it, that might not be a good enough use of my time. But if I can get physical activity. I can also get fun. I can also develop friendships. I can also develop connections in the community and all these different things, then that's much a better use of my time, more efficient use of my time.

I don't know that they all said it in those exact words. But a lot of them just talk about getting multiple benefits from participating in a given sport. And that's another way that I think we can help promote ongoing activity and physical activity, or ongoing participation in physical activity.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Dr. Liechty. For more podcasts on Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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